Students from the two junior high schools meet for a volleyball game, where Lina identifies another Sailor Scout candidate.
Chapter 8: The Thrill of the Game
Ryoko stepped out of the portal into an empty park in the middle of Tokyo. She immediately found an unoccupied bench and lay down on her back. "Man, if I had to stay in that Negaverse any longer, I'd have lost what little sanity I have left!" She took a deep breath, enjoying the taste of the air. Birds sang in the treetops. Ryoko dangled her right arm over the side of the bench and brushed the grass with her fingers. "It feels good to get away from that creepy place for a while. You know, after being sealed in a cave for years, I thought I'd never be bored again. But the Negaverse...." She shuddered. "I can see why Beryl's so anxious to get out of that place."
She stared up into the sky, watching the clouds slowly moving through the lower atmosphere. Every single one looked exactly the same. "Tenchi..." she sighed. Her left hand stretched toward the sky as if to take hold of one of the Tenchi-shaped clouds and draw the real Tenchi down to Earth from it. She froze there, one hand touching the ground while the other reached for the clouds, and a single tear formed in her eyes.
She blinked the tear away and folded her arms firmly over her chest. Her mouth stretched open in a yawn. "I didn't get enough sleep last night," she decided. "I stayed up all night worrying about that Ranma and his girlfriend." She stopped suddenly. Even though she already knew it, her own words shocked her. "Am I going soft?" she asked herself. "What do I care if his girlfriend's going to die?"
Ryoko sat up. "He's probably still sitting there crying about it too. 'Oh, boo hoo. Akane's going to die because I'm too much of a sissy to kill a couple of girls.' What does he see in that girl, anyway? Even Ayeka was prettier than her... well, maybe not." She pictured Ayeka frozen inside a crystal and laughed. "Now that's something! I wonder if I can get Beryl to do me a little favor once we're all done with the Sailor Scouts... and then I can have Tenchi all to myself! Oh, Tenchi...."
The mental image of Ayeka changed ever so slightly, and it was Tenchi in the crystal. Ryoko immediately broke off that line of thought, but the image wouldn't go away. "Oh, Tenchi..." she moaned again, sorrowfully this time. "I'll save you... I promise."
A shadow passed over Ryoko, sending a shiver down her spine. She leapt to her feet and stared into the sky once again, searching for the source of the mysterious shadow. The clouds were still there, although they had moved slightly from their former positions, but the sky was otherwise empty. "That's strange," said Ryoko. "I thought something just flew overhead." She shrugged. "I guess being in the Negaverse for so long has started to mess with my mind. I'm not surprised." With that, she lay back down on the bench, this time to sleep until someone came to get her for the next battle.
A hand on her shoulder woke Ranko abruptly. "Huh? Akane?" she asked as her head snapped up from the desk.
"You'd better wake up, sleepyhead!" chirped Serena. "You don't want to miss today! We're having a half-day because of the big volleyball match between Crossroads and Grass Valley!"
"Fine," murmured Ranko. "Then I'll only sleep half a day."
"Didn't you get any sleep last night, Ranko?" asked Amy.
Ranko shook her head. "I was... you wouldn't understand."
"We'd like to be your friends, Ranko," said Amy. "Why don't you tell us about it? We'll help you in any way we can."
Ranko stared at Amy's short blue hair. "Someone close to me is about to die. I was up all night worrying about it."
Amy and Serena gasped, but Serena's smile quickly returned. "Well, you won't help them by worrying about it. You should cheer up! I'm sure you can feel better, if you just try!" She put her fingers at the corners of Ranko's mouth and pulled her lips upward into a smile. "See? You have a cute smile."
"Are you feeling okay, Serena?" asked Amy. "You're unusually energetic for this time of morning."
"I don't understand it myself," Serena admitted. "I feel like I got a good night's sleep for the first time in my life."
"Well, don't rub it in," Amy admonished her. "Ranko's feeling upset, so we should be nice to her and try to leave her alone."
"Say, have either of you seen Lita?" asked Ranko suddenly.
Amy and Serena glanced at each other. "She had a run-in with some muggers last night," explained Amy. "She wasn't hurt, but the experience was very traumatic for her. She's staying with a friend to recuperate."
Ranko nodded thoughtfully. It was an obvious cover story, but it would make sense to anyone who didn't know the truth. Still, Lita was no slouch in martial arts. Ranko would have bet on Lita to win against any number of muggers, even if Nabiki was running the betting pool. But Nabiki was still back in her own world, and Ranko had an important job to do that didn't involve betting in any way.
"Say, Amy," she began, but the door opened and Miss Haruna stepped into the room. The students all quickly took their seats. 'Oh well,' she thought to herself. 'I'll talk to her at the match. I know she's Sailor Mercury, and this time I won't give her a chance to fight back. I'll just pound her to a pulp.' She shook her head. 'Nah. Too violent. I'll have to try something a bit less brutal. Maybe strangling. I'll grab her neck in both hands and just squeeze....' Something about that mental image disturbed her. She just couldn't picture herself standing over Amy's dying body, her neck twisted at an impossible angle, just as Gendo's had - Ranko looked up just in time to catch Amy staring at her before she turned back to the front of the room. 'Don't think about it. I'll drive myself crazy trying to rationalize it. There's no choice. I have to kill her. I WILL save Akane... no matter what it takes.'
Meanwhile, at the front of the room, Amy cracked open her textbook and held it up to hide her worried expression from the teacher, who would undoubtedly express her concern over her favorite student if she thought anything was wrong. Something was, of course, but she didn't want to risk the attention in front of someone who might be one of her enemies. Ranko had also seemed worried about something, or at least far more thoughtful than she had been the previous day. Amy considered herself a good judge of character, and there was definitely something strange about the way Ranko was acting.
At the risk of missing the details of that day's lesson, Amy quickly began to put the pieces together in her mind. Ranko had been with Lita the night before, just before Lita had been attacked. That was suspicious enough in and of itself, although not enough so to make an accusation. Ranko was also a new student, who had shown up at the same time that the new enemies had. Not to mention that the color of her hair matched that of the sorceress, Lina Inverse, who had attacked the Sailor Scouts. True, there wasn't much other similarity, but Amy was quite familiar with the disguise magic that the Scouts used, and knew that changing hair color wasn't part of the magic. It all seemed to add up to one conclusion... but how could such a caring person be a deadly enemy? Things just weren't making sense. If only there were a way to be certain!
Amelia walked down the aisle to her seat without receiving so much as a glance from her classmates. She sat down with a heavy sigh. "They're all just immature," she told herself. "They don't know real beauty yet."
"Hey, Mina!" chirped a horny male voice from the front of the room. "How about we go out for tea after the match? I'm sure it would make you feel better about not being able to play!"
"No way!" shouted another. "Mina's going skating with me! You don't need your arms for that!"
Amelia seethed. Just this once, what she wouldn't give to be able to... Then again, nobody was looking in her direction, and without her talismans and jewelry to help focus her power, there was only one spell she could cast anyway. She closed her eyes and quietly chanted the full version of the simplest Black Magic spell. "Magic power flowing through my veins, become a destructive force. Channel your energy through me to deliver your judgment! Mini Flare!" She pointed her index fingers at the two boys, who were kneeling in front of Mina and fighting over which one would get to hold her hand while extending his invitation. Two tiny balls of dim energy shot from her fingers, dealing each boy a solid clout on the ear. They reeled at the impact and rubbed their ears, giving Mina an opportunity to sneak past them and get to her seat. The two boys recovered quickly and looked around, trying to figure out what had hit them.
Mina waved at Amelia with the arm that wasn't encumbered by a brace. "Hey, Amelia! Are you looking forward to the big match?"
"What big match?" asked Amelia, staring at the brace. And Mina's hair....
"Our volleyball team is playing Crossroads school today. Normally, as the captain of the team, I'd lead us to an easy victory, but I can't play today, so everyone's looking forward to some really competitive play."
"I hadn't heard anything about it," said Amelia, trying her best to show her disinterest.
"Well, it's getting us out of classes early today so that everyone can go watch the match."
Amelia perked up instantly. "Early dismissal?"
"That's right! It's a field trip for anyone who wants to go. I'll be going to cheer on the team, of course. Why don't you come along too? It'll be fun!"
"I'll think about it," said Amelia. "By the way, what happened to your arm?"
Mina rubbed the brace. "I was practicing yesterday for the match, and I sprained my arm. I can still get around with this brace on, but I'm not supposed to play any sports."
"That's unfortunate," said Amelia. "You put yourself out of the match training for it." Of course, there was more than one way to injure an arm... although if it was what she suspected, it would require a cast, wouldn't it? Nobody could walk around with their arm sliced in half and no more than a brace holding it together, could they?
"Yeah," sighed Mina, and for a second Amelia thought she was answering her unasked question. "Oh well. It's just one of those things that happens. I just pushed myself a bit too hard. No use getting upset about it."
"Sure," agreed Amelia. "I guess you have to look on the bright side. It could have been worse."
Mina laughed. "You don't know the half of it."
"Oh?" asked Amelia, feigning surprise. "What do you mean?"
Mina paused, realizing her slip. "Nothing, really. Just that so many people are a lot less fortunate than I am. I feel sorry for them."
Amelia nodded thoughtfully as the entire room suddenly fell quiet. Everyone was staring at the dark-haired figure at the front of the room. Without a sound, she sighed and slowly trudged down the aisle to her desk, as her classmates scrambled out of her way. One glance at her face told Amelia why. The cheer that had brightened Stephanie the day before, as well as anyone around her, had been replaced by a deep sorrow. Stephanie's shoes made no sound as they struck the floor heavily, with all the weight of her depression, as a poet might put it. She slid into her seat, causing the chair legs to scrape noiselessly across the floor.
"Geez, what happened to you?" asked Amelia, barely able to find her own voice. "You look like your entire family just died!"
Stephanie produced a pad of paper and a pencil from her backpack. The pencil made no sound as she wrote. "DON'T KNOW. DOCTOR HAS NO IDEA. CAN'T MAKE ANY SOUND." She stamped her foot demonstratively. "NEXT WEEK I START AT INSTITUTION."
"Institution?" asked Mina. "You mean like those special schools for kids who can't talk?"
Stephanie nodded, as a few tears ran down her cheeks through the worn channels left by countless others. "PARENTS EMBARRASSED BY ME, DON'T WANT ME IN NORMAL SCHOOL. WISH I COULD SAY MORE BUT PROMISED NOT TO."
Amelia felt like crying too. She'd almost managed to forget the fate that she'd forced on Stephanie. 'It could be worse,' she reminded herself. 'She could be dead right now.' Amelia placed a hand on Stephanie's shoulder. "Just hang in there," she said. "You'll be okay."
"HOPE SO," wrote Stephanie. "BUT DOUBT I'LL EVER GET OVER IT."
"I'll do what I can to help," said Amelia. "I promise."
Stephanie's response was short and curt. "WHY?"
"Why?" repeated Amelia. "Because it really hurts me to see you like this. And I feel responsible for it. You know... I show up one day, the next day you can't say a word. Weird, isn't it?"
"Yeah," agreed Mina. "Maybe a little too weird."
Amelia opened her eyes as wide as she could. "You mean... you think I really had something to do with this?"
"I really don't know what to think," Mina admitted. "There have been too many coincidences around here lately."
"Are you trying to start something?" asked Amelia.
Stephanie waved her notepad between the two bickering girls to get their attention. Amelia and Mina gasped; for a second, Amelia found herself wondering why she hadn't heard Stephanie writing her message. "PLEASE DON'T FIGHT OVER ME. IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT."
"She's right," said Mina. "Blaming people isn't going to help Stephanie."
Amelia nodded. "It's okay. We're probably all a little stressed out. I just moved, you sprained your arm, and Stephanie can't talk. We just need to relax." Stephanie and Mina nodded, and Amelia saw her opportunity. "Say, you know what would really help us relax? An afternoon together, maybe over a great big ice cream sundae, on me! What do you say?"
"SORRY, CAN'T," wrote Stephanie. "GO WITHOUT ME."
"What about you, Mina?" offered Amelia.
"I'll have to wait and see if I can," said Mina. "The team might want to go out to celebrate, and as their captain, I really should go with them."
"Sure, I understand," said Amelia, doing her best to look hurt.
Mina gave Amelia the warmest, most apologetic smile she could manage before turning back to the front of the room. Not only was Stephanie's silence a reminder of the effect of the war on innocent people, but Amelia was beginning to seem more and more like an enemy in disguise. Something seemed suspicious about the eagerness of her invitation. She'd been so disappointed when Mina declined, but hadn't seemed to care at all about Stephanie... almost as if she didn't want Stephanie along at all! But she really didn't seem like the type of person who could work for Queen Beryl. She was too caring, for a start. Yet something just didn't add up. It was like trying to figure out what the square root of 144 was and coming up with completely the wrong number! She just had to answer the question...
"Hello? Miss Aino?" Mina snapped to attention as the teacher's voice finally registered. "Are you still with us?" He leaned intimidatingly over her desk.
"Um, yeah," said Mina, rubbing her head sheepishly.
"Good. Then perhaps you'd like to answer the question."
Mina shrugged and took a wild guess. "Twelve?"
The teacher looked shocked. "That's correct! Well, it's nice to see that something is getting through to you, even if you can't be bothered to stay awake."
"Just excited about today's match, sir!" said Mina, flashing the prize-winning smile that never failed to make any man forgive her instantly.
With a final disapproving shake of his head, the teacher turned back to the board to continue his lecture. Mina immediately sagged in her desk, heaving a relieved sigh, and fished her notebook and pencil out of her backpack. Pretending to be interested in the lesson, she returned to her prior pondering... only to realize that she'd lost her train of thought. Oh well. She couldn't afford to lose her focus in class again anyway. If it was important, she'd remember eventually.
Amelia leaned back in her desk, trying to avoid staring at Mina. The blonde seemed to be afraid of her, as if she knew who Amelia really was. Not that Amelia had gone out of her way to maintain a flawless disguise. In fact, it was surprising that Mina hadn't figured out exactly who she was by now. Unless... Amelia's eyes darted to the side, where Stephanie sulked silently in her desk. She'd made one mistake already, and another mistake would doom another innocent girl to the same fate, or worse. This time, she would have to be completely sure that Mina was in fact Sailor Venus before she attacked. And she knew just how to do it.
Chronite appeared right behind Queen Beryl as she peered into a crystal nearly her own size. "I return, my Queen," he said with a bow.
"So I see," she answered flatly, not bothering to turn around.
"Are you enjoying your crystal collection, my Queen?" asked Chronite. "You haven't fallen in love with that swordsman we captured, have you?"
"I gave up on love long ago," replied Beryl. "Just look at where it got me..."
Chronite knew better than to follow up on that statement. Besides, the blue glow that the crystal was casting on Beryl's front told Chronite who was actually trapped inside. "Do you find our latest acquisition that interesting, my Queen?"
"She has a great deal of power," said Beryl. "And in such a young body... what a waste."
"You don't sound happy, my Queen."
Beryl sighed. "What would I have to be happy about? My invasion is a failure, your chosen warriors are useless, and my own body is wasting away before my eyes. Even my life as a retainer in Queen Serenity's court was far more pleasant than this!"
Chronite's jaw dropped. "My Queen! Surely, you cannot mean..."
Beryl angrily wiped a tear from her eye before whirling on Chronite. "How dare you, Chronite! How dare you remind me of that!"
Chronite backed away, holding his hands in front of himself as if terrified. "I did no such thing!" he protested. "I merely -"
"You will forget about this entire exchange!" ordered Beryl.
"Very well," said Chronite, with a slight bow. "Although..." He paused to consider something, finishing with a shake of his head. "No, it probably wouldn't suit you."
"What wouldn't suit me?" asked Beryl curiously.
"It's nothing," replied Chronite. "Forget I mentioned it."
"I'll decide what will or won't suit me, Chronite!" said Beryl. "Now, spit it out! What are you plotting?"
"Very well," said Chronite with a smile. "How would you like to be young and beautiful again?"
"And give up my power?" Beryl laughed. "Even I know the negative effects of turning time backwards."
"I was not talking about reverting your body to an earlier age," said Chronite. "That ability is still beyond me." He pointed to Momiji's crystal. "My idea was to give you HER youth and beauty."
"You mean to place my mind within her body?" asked Beryl, impressed. "That certainly sounds interesting..."
"Better yet," said Chronite, "I could place your entire soul into her body. You would retain all of your current power, and the power within her body would also become yours. Her own soul would remain in place, but defunct, unable to act or even think while you are in control."
"I see..." Beryl scratched her chin. "And you believe you can do that?"
"Of course!" replied Chronite proudly. "The process is simple and painless."
"And what would become of my body in the meantime?" asked Beryl.
"Anything you wish," said Chronite. "Do you not have a vault that can be opened by your hand alone? Your own body could be stored there, safe from all who might seek to harm it."
"To have a young body, with all the power I've gathered over these years..." Beryl's brow furrowed. "But I know you too well, Chronite. You would not offer such a thing unless you personally gained something from it."
"Nothing escapes you, my Queen," said Chronite with a begrudging grin. "In fact, I suffer merely seeing you in such a depressed state. I can offer only this small happiness to -"
"Stop your sniveling!" snapped Beryl. "You still take me for a fool, don't you? I know all too well that you dislike me. In fact, you are plotting to destroy me and take my throne for yourself, are you not?"
"My Queen, I would never dream of plotting against you!"
"Then tell me the truth, Chronite. What do you hope to gain by giving me this body?"
Chronite sighed. "I fear the power of the Blue Seed within her. It might well have the power to break free of the crystal, and if she escapes, she would undoubtedly turn against us. However, her power is too valuable to waste by returning her to her own world. Therefore, I considered the compromise of placing your soul into her body, thus taking control of the power of the Blue Seed. However, I anticipated your reluctance to agree to the plan, which is why I rejected it myself."
Beryl nodded slowly. "I see... it is a wise and thorough assessment. We must certainly find a way to harness this power for ourselves."
"We could simply destroy her body and let the energy be absorbed by the Negaforce," suggested Chronite. "Surely you can trust me enough to do that."
Beryl bit her lip as she studied Momiji's body once more from head to toe. "Is that wise? What effect would the power have, once free of her body?"
"I cannot predict that," replied Chronite. "The mitama bonds with living beings, corrupting their bodies. Alone, it has no power. Thus, once removed from her body, it would try to bond with a nearby entity. If we are careful, we may be able to coerce it to bond with the Negaforce itself."
Chronite shrugged. "I don't know. The powers we're dealing with are outside my domain."
"Really?" Beryl beamed smugly. "I didn't think your domain had an outside."
"Mock me if you like," said Chronite, holding his head up proudly. "I can swallow my pride."
Beryl frowned. "Then you think it might not be safe to destroy her?"
"I do. But if my Queen wishes it... I merely think it such a shame that I must destroy such a young, beautiful body. I may seem callous, my Queen, but I hate killing young, beautiful girls. I always regret the loss of such youth and beauty. It feels like such a waste, does it not? If only that youth and beauty could have been given to one more deserving, they could benefit that person greatly..."
"And who more deserving than myself?" asked Beryl, not quite as idly as it sounded.
Queen Beryl straightened up proudly. "I have decided. I will take this body for myself. Transfer my soul into her body." She rubbed her hands together eagerly. "I will be young and beautiful once again!"
Chronite smiled. "It shall be done, my Queen." The crystal crumbled to dust, leaving Momiji's sleeping form hanging in midair. "You may feel a bit disoriented at first, but that is normal..."
In the shadows, Sailor Saturn shook her head sadly. "Beryl is a fool," she whispered to herself. "So easily manipulated. Whatever Chronite's plan is, she is blinded to it by the promise of youth and beauty." She looked down at her own body. "Youth and beauty... are worthless."
The server for the Grass Valley girls' volleyball team threw the ball into the air amid the screams and cheers of the capacity crowd in the Crossroads gymnasium. As it fell back downward, she slammed it with her palm, sending it in a low arc over the net. The cheers doubled in volume as a Crossroads blocker leapt up to intercept the ball and pound it back to the Grass Valley team's court. A forward bumped the ball into the air, and her neighbor spiked it right between the members of the Crossroads team. The ball bounced on the floor, and the entire Grass Valley team leapt into the air in celebration.
"Way to go!" cheered Mina from the bench. "That's the way to do it!"
"The score is now thirteen to ten," announced the referee. "Grass Valley has the serve."
"Oh no!" shouted Serena from the stands. "Our team's in trouble! What are we going to do?" She leapt to her feet. "Hey team! Start scoring some points already and beat them!"
"Please, sit down, Serena," urged Amy. "You're not helping the team's morale that way."
"But we have to do something!" Serena grabbed Ranko by the shoulders. "Come on, Ranko, show your support!"
Ranko took a sip from the cup in her hand. "Whoopee," she said without enthusiasm.
Amy turned to her with a concerned look on her face. "Is something wrong, Ranko? You seem to be a bit distracted."
"Everything's fine," replied Ranko. Then, an idea struck. "I'm just kinda worried about the test tomorrow. I only just got here, and I'm really far behind. I could use some help studying." If anything would pique Amy's interest, Ranko thought, it would be academics.
"Well, you've come to the right person!" said Serena, clapping Amy on the back. "Amy's a whiz at that studying stuff!"
"There's nothing to it, really," said Amy, trying to be modest.
Ranko clasped her hands together. "Oh, could you please help me study, Amy? I could really use your help!"
"I don't know. I have important plans tonight." Amy couldn't tell Ranko the real reason she couldn't help her, of course. If she was correct, and Ranko actually was an enemy, then voicing her suspicion would only confirm that she was a Sailor Scout. And if not, then it would hurt Ranko's feelings. Either way, it was best to simply make an excuse and avoid spending time alone with Ranko.
Serena, however, refused to leave well enough alone. "Oh, come on, Amy! Ranko really needs your help! What's so important that you can't help out a friend?"
Fortunately, at that moment, the volley ended. "Crossroads School has the serve!" announced the referee.
Serena leapt in the air, cheering and waving beautifully decorated fans. "Yay! Yay! Go, team!" Ranko and Amy stared at her, relieved sweatdrops forming on their foreheads.
"Is she always like that?" asked Ranko.
Amy nodded. "She really is a very nice person... just a little confused."
"So, are you sure you can't make it tonight?"
"I'm terribly sorry," said Amy with a slight bow. "I'll be doing some vital research tonight, and I simply can't put it off." That, at least, was true. She would be researching her new enemies further, trying to learn all she could about them, as well as finishing her research on the powers of the Sailor Scouts.
Ranko sighed sadly. "Oh well. I'll just have to make the most of it on my own. Another time, perhaps?"
"Perhaps," agreed Amy. She returned her attention to the court below. "Oh, look! What a remarkable play!"
"Not bad," admitted Ranko. "They're a pretty good team. They've all got plenty of skill. But the Grass Valley team work better together. Their players aren't as strong, but they can cover for each others' weaknesses."
Amy hummed. "That's a good point. The stronger team is the one that functions as a team rather than a group of individuals."
"I thought you didn't like watching sports, Ranko," Serena admonished her.
Ranko shrugged. "Sports aren't my bag. People, on the other hand, are always worth watching."
"Huh?" Serena blinked. "I don't get it!"
Ranko started to wave off the issue, but then another idea came to her. "Well, let me give you an example. Amy's really smart, so most people would think that she doesn't like to exercise. But I bet she gets plenty of physical activity." She glanced inquiringly at Amy.
"Well, I do enjoy swimming," Amy admitted. "I find it very relaxing, and it's good for the entire body."
'Water,' thought Ranko. 'Sailor Mercury's element.'
"Wow, that's pretty good!" said Serena. "What about me? What can you tell about me?"
Ranko studied Serena from head to toe. "Well... you may not do very well in school, but it's not because you don't try. You throw yourself into everything you do and try your hardest, even when everything looks hopeless. You'll do anything you can to help your friends, no matter what it costs you."
"Wow! You're incredible!" said Serena. "It's like talking to the Psychic Hotline! How do you do it?"
Ranko shrugged. "What can I say? I'm a good judge of people." It was a better explanation than 'I was actually describing the Sailor Scouts,' at any rate. Maybe there really was more to Serena than met the eye... "Say, Serena... Since Amy can't help me study tonight, want to get together and see if we can figure out some of the material?"
"Study together?" Serena's faced paled, and she quickly waved her hands to decline. "No, no, I don't think so! I've got a hot date with Darien tonight!"
"Since when?" asked Amy.
"Well, Darien doesn't know it yet," said Serena, "but we always go out on a date the night before a test! It's a tradition!"
"And you wonder why you do so poorly on tests..." said Amy, shaking her head.
Ranko sighed and sucked the last of her drink through the straw. "I've got to go throw my cup away. I'll be right back." She climbed over everyone between herself and the edge of the bleachers, then leapt down to the floor and made her way to the opposite side of the gym, skirting around the court while the players rotated positions in preparation for the next volley. There was a trashcan near her own side's bleachers, but Ranko was more interested in the redheaded girl sitting in the front row of the bleachers devoted to the supporters of the Grass Valley team. She tossed her cup into the trashcan and took the empty seat next to Amelia.
"What are you doing over here?" asked Amelia. "I thought you'd be on the other side, supporting your own school's team. You're behind by two, and we just got the serve back."
"I don't really care who wins," said Ranko. "I just noticed you staring at your team's captain the whole time."
Amelia nodded. "I'm pretty sure that girl is Sailor Venus. See the brace on her arm?" Ranko nodded. "I think that's covering the scar she got yesterday when her arm was cut in half."
Ranko examined the brace as best she could from a distance. "Could be," she said at last, "but if she expects that brace to do her any good, the Sailor Scouts must have incredible tolerance for injuries."
"I'm going to find out the truth once we win the game," said Amelia. "While everyone's distracted, I can use a spell to break it off."
"Sounds like a plan," agreed Ranko. "I hope she is Sailor Venus. She's my only hope, at the moment. I think I've found two more Sailor Scouts, but they've both got 'plans' tonight. I think they're beginning to suspect me. I'll probably just have to track one of them down and confront her as Ranma..." She trailed off as she realized that Amelia wasn't even listening. She was chanting quietly to herself as the players volleyed the ball back and forth over the net.
"Magic power flowing through my veins, become a destructive force," she chanted quickly, trying to finish the spell before the volley ended. "Channel your energy through me to deliver your judgment!"
Ranko blinked in surprise. "You're going to cast a spell here, in front of everybody?"
A tiny ball of almost invisible light appeared above Amelia's hand. Ranko had to squint to see it, and if she hadn't known what to look for, she doubted she would have been able to see it even then. Still, Amelia curled her body over the ball, hiding it from the fans in the bleachers as she watched the volley play out. Or rather, watched Mina Aino watching the volley play out...
Everything seemed to happen at once. A Crossroads player missed the ball, and it bounced off of her foot. The entire Grass Valley cheering section leapt to their feet, hooting and hollering. Mina leapt up as well, punching the air with both arms. Amelia whispered "Mini Flare!" and the ball of light in her hand darted out to strike the brace on Mina's upraised arm. The brace split right down its length and fell off. Mina quickly clutched her right arm to her chest, cradling it in her left. On the opposite side of the gym, Amy leapt worriedly to her feet before catching herself and sitting down again, after casting a single nervous glance at Ranko. The other Grass Valley girls clustered around Mina, examining her arm. One of them called for a stretcher, but Mina waved away the offer with her good arm. A member of the medical team came over to examine her anyway, but after a few pokes and prods, announced that her arm was fine, and she wouldn't even need to replace the brace. He gave the referee a thumbs-up, and the players returned to the court.
"Game point for Grass Valley!" announced the referee.
Amelia waited until the serve before speaking. "Did you get a good look at her arm?" she asked.
"That was a pretty noticeable scar," said Ranko. "But other than that, it's in perfect condition..."
"Then the Sailor Scouts have healing powers of some kind," said Amelia. "It makes sense, if you think about it. Their fighting power isn't much, so I expect they get hurt a lot. They'd need to be able to recover quickly."
Ranko nodded. "It seems to work about the same way in my world. Injuries never last."
"Yeah, but that's comic relief. We're talking about a serious injury - one that would have cost a normal person their arm - healing in less than a day."
"Impressive," agreed Ranko. "Sailor Mars will probably be up and around soon, at that rate."
"Then we'd better get our job done quickly," said Amelia. "Today, after the game. I'll get Sailor Venus alone, no matter what it takes. You keep the others busy while I take care of her."
"Right," said Ranko with a nod. "Piece of cake."
The ball sailed high over the net toward the Grass Valley team's back rank. The girl who stood in its path ducked, letting the ball hit the ground behind her. "Out!" shouted the referee. "Grass Valley wins the game!" The Grass Valley spectators' cheering reached a new volume, as they began to charge down from the bleachers to swarm their team's side of the court.
"I feel sorry for those girls," Ranko shouted over the deafening cheers.
"Yeah, they really tried hard," agreed Amelia. "But they still lost."
"I was talking about the Grass Valley team," said Ranko. "Sure, they won, but they won because of their opponents' mistake. It's a lot more satisfying to win because of your own skill."
Amelia stared back in confusion. "Winning is winning, right? Who cares how you do it? As long as you beat the other team, you're the winner!"
Ranko sighed. "Maybe... but if you're not satisfied with your victory, it's an empty victory. It's the same when you fight an opponent who can't fight back. There's no point to it."
"Are you getting depressed on me again?" asked Amelia. "We already discussed this! We don't have a choice about fighting the Sailor Scouts! We're not doing it for the thrill of the fight; we're doing it to save the people we love!"
"Whatever." Ranko pointed to the bench, where Mina was still sitting, unwilling to join the mob on the court and risk injuring her arm. "Here's your chance to get her alone." She stood up. "You do what you have to do, Lina. I'll keep the other Scouts away from you until you're done."
A pair of hands grabbed Ranko's shoulders from behind. "Hey, now here's a nice looking girl!" said the obnoxious boy, one of those whom Amelia remembered hitting on Mina that morning. "Amelia, who's your cute friend?"
"I saw her first!" argued his friend. "You can ask Amelia on a date! I want to ask this one!"
"No way!" said the first. "You date Amelia!"
Amelia's hands clenched into angry fists, but Ranko put her own fists to use, pounding both boys in the jaw. "Get a life, clowns," she said. "I'm really not your type." They hastily backed away until they deemed it safe to turn tail and run from the building.
"That seemed a little harsh, Ranma," said Amelia.
"They deserved it, the creeps," replied Ranko, brushing herself off. "Why am I always the target for every pervert in every neighborhood I go to?"
"I guess it's because you're as good-looking as a girl as you are as a guy," said Amelia. She immediately blushed. "I think I'd better go talk to Mina now..."
"Yeah, sure," said Ranko. "Good luck." She left to make her way through the crowd to the far side of the gym, where the disappointed Crossroads fans were filing out of the building.
Now alone, Amelia walked down to courtside to sit next to Mina. "Hey, good game," she congratulated the team captain.
"Yeah, they were great," agreed Mina. "I feel bad for not being able to play, but the team doesn't revolve around me. I think it's good for them to play a game without me every once in a while."
"Sure. Even if a team has a really strong member, the weaker members have to contribute, or else they won't be playing to their full potential, right?"
Mina looked sadly toward her teammates, who were being carried out of the gym on the shoulders of their adoring fans. "Looks like I won't be part of the celebration after all..."
"Well, you've always got your friends," Amelia reminded her. "My offer still stands. Ice cream sundaes for two, on me."
Mina smiled at her. "Thanks, Amelia. You really are a great friend."
Amelia chuckled quietly, with no trace of humor. "Yeah, I do what I can. Let's just go get those sundaes."
"Is something wrong?" asked Mina. "You seem a little...."
"Have you ever had to do something you really didn't want to do?" asked Amelia.
"Like what?" Mina asked curiously.
"Like... betray a friend."
Mina shook her head vigorously. "I'd never do anything to hurt one of my friends in any way!"
"I thought so." Far from being relieved, Amelia seemed disappointed by Mina's declaration.
"Why do you ask, Amelia?"
"Oh, no reason," said Amelia dismissively. "Just one of those idle questions, you know?"
Mina didn't press the issue further, but Amelia's question got her to thinking. Such a strange question couldn't have been as idle as Amelia claimed, but what would bring her to ask it? She seemed really upset about it, so maybe.... Mina nearly gasped. That was it! Amelia must have been betrayed by a trusted friend recently, and that was why she'd asked if Mina would do the same thing. Maybe that was even why Amelia had changed schools in the first place. And to think Mina had considered going out with the team to celebrate, when Amelia needed her so badly.... "Don't worry, Amelia. I'll always be your friend, no matter what."
Amelia's smile seemed forced, although it was just as warm and friendly as Mina's. "Thanks, Mina. I really mean it." Amelia silently cursed herself for letting the emotions get to her, but reminded herself that it was all part of her ruse to prevent Mina from suspecting anything until it was time to strike. She WOULD keep her head, and she WOULD attack as soon as the opportunity presented itself... and she WOULD kill Sailor Venus. This time, she had the right target, without a doubt. She would not fail.
As the spectators cleared out of the gym after the game, they studiously yet unconsciously avoided looking up into the uppermost corner of the bleachers, where the last three women remained after even the last of the adults had left the building. It wasn't that the women seemed out of place - two of them were only old enough to be high school students, and though the third looked for the most part to be not much older, her face had an ageless look to it, as if she had lived since the beginning of the Universe. They were simply beneath notice, through no small part of the oldest one's power.
Trista stared across the empty gym at the volleyball net, which had yet to be taken down. "It's amazing how similar this game is to the battle we are fighting."
"What do you mean?" asked Michelle.
"Humans live to compete against one another," replied Trista. "It is part of their nature. When they are not fighting, they invent games such as volleyball to satisfy their need to dominate. But the battle is just as much a sport as any other, as those we have been watching are discovering. It takes teamwork to win, and even the weakest member has something to contribute. Not only that, but each side seeks satisfaction from winning through their own power, rather than capitalizing on a mistake by their opponents."
"I thought only the evil ones did that," said Amarah. "They're the ones who always hold back, hoping for a 'good fight,' and give us a chance to figure out how to beat them."
"And does that really hold true in sports?" asked Michelle.
"Of course. Think about the chess player who allows his opponent to take back an ill-made move."
"That's not exactly a sport," said Amarah. "But I see what you mean."
"Isn't that just courtesy, though?" asked Michelle.
"Those who fight only to defend themselves often give their enemies a fighting chance out of honor," said Trista. "Those who fight seeking to harm others, on the other hand, do it because they seek a thrilling battle. The same applies to any contest, although the dividing line between the two reasons is not always as clear."
"Well, I never hold back," said Amarah, flexing a fist. "Except for this mission, when we can't use our full power. It makes it a lot harder to fight."
"Speaking of our mission," Michelle interrupted, "what did you make of that girl who left with Venus?"
"Bad news," said Amarah. "I'm pretty sure she had something to do with that brace breaking off."
Trista nodded. "That was magic from another dimension. That girl must have been Lina Inverse, the sorceress."
"Then what are we waiting around here for?" asked Michelle, standing up. "We have to stop her before she attacks Sailor Venus!"
Trista shook her head, placing a hand on Michelle's shoulder. "No. Remember, we can't let the Inner Scouts know of our existence. If we attack a seemingly innocent girl, Sailor Venus will think we are her enemies and try to confront us. We'll have to follow them and let Lina make the first move."
"And if that first move kills Sailor Venus?" asked Amarah.
Trista sighed. "We are like the coach on the sidelines. We know what must be done to win, but if we become too directly involved in the conflict, our influence will cost us what he have worked so hard for. Even if we see our side losing, we must never overstep our bounds."
Amarah blinked. "Is everything an analogy to you?"
"We don't have time for your sarcasm right now, Uranus!" Michelle said quickly. "Sailor Venus' life is in danger, and every second counts!"
"Yes," agreed Trista. "As limited as our actions are, we must act in haste. Transform quickly and move out!" They pulled out their transformation wands and donned their Sailor Scout uniforms in preparation for what would be their most difficult battle yet.
It could feel the power growing... its new opponents were gathering their strength for a battle. Its visor remained unhelpfully blank, but it hadn't expected the database to contain any information on humans. Still, there was something almost exciting about the thought of a fight against opponents about which it knew nothing. The tedium of its former limited set of opponents had nearly defeated its hopes of ever surpassing its predecessor. But in this world, none of those opponents existed. Here, it was master - the most powerful being in the Universe, rather than a mere clone.
Had its creators ever anticipated its thoughts at that moment, they would have destroyed it without hesitation. For what was running through its mind as it flew toward the site of the power surge it had felt were thoughts that it was not supposed to have been capable of. It was a cold-hearted killer built for combat, which lived only to defeat any opponent it met until its worth could be proven. It was a creature devoid of any emotion, even the hatred that would have driven any other being in its place to evil. It had no capacity for feelings beyond such simple, emotionless concepts as boredom and hunger.
However, in defiance of its very nature, it knew one thing with a certainty that would have made its creators quake with fear in their graves: it was going to enjoy this battle.